My stuff and your stuff: I write books, produce music, rant a bit, and in the meantime review things other people have done. With words.

I know you got soul: The Witness review


I’m pretty certain that no matter how long I might have spent trying to solve one of The Witness’ puzzles in the end section of the game, I’d only have got it through guesswork. And, venturing online to find the solution, which I confess to doing with roughly 20 puzzles out of several hundred, I found a good deal of snobbery: evidently far more intelligent puzzle experts saying it devalues the price you pay for the game if you ‘cheat’ by looking a solution up, and how cheaters don’t get the full experience of the game.


So what is the full experience? As I understand it, it’s not really a game; it’s an experience in which each participant will take away something perhaps different. Yes, we’re all going to punch the air when we solve a particularly tricky puzzle, but one man’s tricky is another’s simplicity.


Our brains may broadly be wired the same but intelligence is by no means universal. What I’m getting at is that I don’t feel cheated by cheating, and I don’t think someone who solved the whole lot by themselves should be able to claim they had a purer experience.


Videogames like this, those in an open world with closed areas, are about progression, and if my own cerebral limitations stand in the way of that then naturally, in order to progress, I’m going to seek help. This is, I’m certain, one of creator Jonathan Blow’s assumed outcomes. Surely he knew some people would hit a brick wall; he knew some would go all the way without help; he knew he was devising a paradox: an astonishingly beautiful world to roam around, one with secrets that could be hard or easily-won – because he also knew that people would create guides for the game and stick them online.


There’s a time issue to consider too. When I have 100 or so games in my Steam library and still things like Metal Gear Solid V to finish, not to mention the countless others, I’m not going to spend hours trying to work out the solution to one puzzle, especially knowing that the next few to follow it will be even more difficult for me.


With that out of the way, which really is The Witness’ only problem – the mental capacity and patience threshold of people who buy it – I can say in all other respects it’s an absolute gem of an experience. Those few hundred puzzles I managed to solve were very satisfying but, for me, as someone who likes to immerse himself in game worlds (the more beautiful the better) it was a world I’ll remember for a very long time.


It’s the same feeling of isolation and solitude you might get from the original Tomb Raider, knocking about old caverns and searching for treasure. Dark passages, a creepy atmosphere and some sense of dread… indeed, The Witness has these things but you might take away a different experience. Just because I find it creepy doesn’t mean anyone else will.


The creepiness comes from the figures and their poses. Throughout the world, there are what appear to be people turned to stone, posed in situations such as mid-argument, or looking up at the sky, or kneeling and deep in thought… why, I’m still not sure.


What I took away from this then was a mixture of achievement (I did the majority of it without help) and disappointment. If I were to award a score out of 10, I’d be pushing for the top mark, but the disappointment is all my own because the creepiness, for example, didn’t go anywhere. Those figures didn’t spring to life at the end, as if stuck in a moment in time and ‘unfreezed’ by my heroic actions. It just seemed that was what I was working towards, some kind of big reveal, but no.


There’s really no other soul there, but constant reminders that there once was, the very soul who created it all, and within that realisation there is something quite poignant. With only my avatar’s shadow for company, I started and ended the experience alone, with no clue at the end as to why I’d been put there to begin this journey at all. Once finished, I’m merely offered the option to ‘start a new game’. But that’s how Blow designed it, and that’s what we’re meant to get. I’m not going to tell him how to design his software just as I wouldn’t expect him to tell me how to write my novels.


Nevertheless, I will return. To soak it all in again, to do those puzzles perhaps faster next time, to explore and immerse myself in the beauty once more. At times, I wished I had a gun and that there were similarly armed assailants on the island who I could blow away between the cerebral bits; or some giant monster might appear at the end and I’d have to puzzle it to death.


No. The Witness excels at what it does – it’s a test, pure and simple (and lengthy), and one unfamiliar to the majority of gamers. It’s exceedingly well made, beautiful in design, thought-provoking, philosophical and worth every penny.